British supernatural horror seems to be booming these days. Names like Adam Nevill, Simon Bestwick, Reggie Oliver, and Gary McMahon spring to mind. Nevill has been a favorite of mine and his fifth novel comes out this year. Bestwick won me over with his short fiction and then had a hit with his first novel The Faceless which was published last year. Gary McMahon was another author who first snagged my attention with some of his short fiction and has been keeping busy, with an impressive output of novels in the last few years alone.
McMahon has done something that is not too often seen in the field of horror fiction, and has delivered a horror trilogy. The Concrete Grove was published in 2011, and was followed by Silent Voices and Beyond Here Lies Nothing in 2012. They have all been well received, so I finally picked the first one up off my shelf and gave it a read.
The Concrete Grove is a fine example of urban horror. At times I think it’s better described as “dark urban fantasy”, but the horrific moments are plentiful enough to classify it as horror. McMahon opens the novel with a bang, the first chapter easily grabbing the reader’s attention and setting the mood for what to expect throughout the book.
The novel follows a few different characters, all of whom have issues. McMahon does a great job making believable characters that each have their own flaws and weaknesses. Some aren’t even all that likeable. The story follows Hailey and her mother Lana, who are forced to live in The Grove (a council estate, known in America as “projects”) after their husband shames the family before committing suicide. To provide for her daughter Lana has made some shady decisions of her own, placing her in debt to Monty Bright, the local crime-lord/loan shark. Into this dubious mix enters Tom, who becomes entangled in their lives when he comes across Hailey one night and offers her some assistance. Tom lives outside The Grove, but sometimes his nightly jogs take him through the outskirts, which is how he becomes involved. Tom is a lonely man trapped in a loveless marriage to an overweight, paraplegic wife. This has meant years of acting as a caregiver and putting aside his own happiness, and the strain on him is finally reaching the breaking point.
Tom soon becomes obsessed with the beautiful Lana and they begin a relationship, as Hailey grows more distant and involved with some sort of “entity” or “force” residing in The Needle, a decrepit, condemned tower block in the center of the estate. Tom also has the distinction of being the most convincing character, and McMahon expertly paints a portrait of a man struggling with guilt and desire. His plight seems a bit more realistic and every day than Lana’s, which seems to make him all the more believable. Hailey is intriguing, but probably the least likeable character of the bunch.
McMahon’s biggest accomplishment with The Concrete Grove lies in his ability to turn the setting into a character in its own right. The filth, the gloom, the oppressive feel of the Grove itself is established from the first page. It feeds on all the negativity, poverty, and crime. It feels real, and even without the supernatural elements it is a horrific place. All the more so because places like this actually exist, and as someone who was raised in a place that’s more rural than anything the thought of having to live in such a decayed, dirty urban area is enough to make me cringe.
As to the horrors of the novel, I’m glad to say they are many and they are varied. The supernatural beings are creepy enough, but perhaps the weakest of the novels many terrors. The breakdown of the characters and their dark thoughts strike a deeper chord, and are what intrigued me the most, but perhaps most horrific of all were the horrors perpetrated by characters themselves. Monty and his thugs are vile, wicked, sadistic and disgusting. Setting usually plays a major role in horror, and as I’ve said previously McMahon does an excellent job with creating an oppressive, gloomy setting. All of these horrors blend together smoothly and seamlessly, working in concert to hit all the soft spots of the reader.
Overall McMahon has written a novel that’s successful on many levels, and that it’s the first of a trilogy (it appears each book follows different characters) about The Grove itself is quite exciting. The plot wraps up nicely, but McMahon has only scratched the surface of The Grove, and seeing more of its mysteries unfold is something I am eagerly looking forward to.